My mother and I returned to New York the next day, and now, two weeks later, barely into July, I'm on a late-night plane to Montana and still burning with shame. And no closer to understanding how I could have failed.
All I know is that it will never happen again. I'm taking my violin as far away as I can from everything that put me on that stage.
My throat tightens as I hold down the tears that have been hovering this whole flight out. What if Mom's right, and at sixteen years old I'm making the biggest mistake of my life?
As the plane nears Missoula, passengers lean toward cold windows, and I recognize a moonlit summer valley an instant before someone says, "We're coming in over the Rattlesnake."
Scattered lights-one of them must be my dad's house-merge into the close-packed ones of downtown. Not very many lights, really, and dark mountains ring the bright basin like a cord pulled tight.
The hardest thing was getting Mom to believe I was serious. "Leave your violin teacher? Drop out of music school?" Are you crazy? her tone implied. Then she changed arguments. "And how can you want to live with a stepfamily you haven't even met?"
I didn't know how to answer her; I never do, but for once I didn't give in, either. On my own, I had called Dad for a plane ticket and sorted my things into what I'd take with me and what I'd have sent on later.
If I have them sent on. I couldn't tell Mom I was already worrying that staying away from New York might be harder than remaining. She'd have grabbed on to a weakness like that and enlarged it until I'd be back right where she wanted me.
Now, as we angle down to the runway, I think about Mom seeing me off from La Guardia Airport earlier today.
She was so silently angry, I wasn't sure she'd even say good-bye. But she'd suddenly touched the violin case I was clutching. "At least you're taking that with you," she said, and for a brief instant she really seemed to want to understand.
I wish I could have explained. Could have offered something better, anyway, than only telling her, "I couldn't leave it behind."
Though that's the truth. I couldn't.
Dad's tall enough that I easily spot him amid the airport confusion. "Hey!" I yell, running to him for a hug. He looks so welcoming with his arms open wide that I have to fight back a sudden urge to cry. "Hey," I say, and I hang on to his neck a moment before stepping back.
His gaze shifts to a girl rapidly weaving her way through the crowd. Amy, I think, recognizing her from photos. Without slowing down she looks over her shoulder, hollers, "Mom, she's here!" and rams into the edge of a display case. Her mouth opens in surprise when she sees the huge grizzly bear towering inside.
I hurry over with Dad, who asks, "You all right? No permanent damage? The bear didn't bite?"
The poor kid's face is crimson with embarrassment.
"I don't see any puncture marks," I joke, hoping to make her laugh. Then I add, "I'm happy to meet you, Amy. I'm Tess."
She shoots me a mortified glance and barely mumbles a hello.
"And I'm Meg," someone says, and I turn to meet Dad's new wife. She's taller than I'd pictured; fit looking; wears her hair, black like Amy's but faded, loosely caught behind her head. She says, "We are so glad you're here, Tess."
I offer her my hand to shake, but she laughs and hugs me. A real hug, not at all like one of Mom's, which doesn't mess up hairstyles and makeup. Meg hugs as though she means it.
AS WE DRIVE away from the airport, I think about how you hear that a man sometimes marries the same woman twice. The same kind of woman. I suppose that deep down that's what I expected Dad to have done, but my brief impression of Meg is that she's as different from Mom as comfortable jeans are from a tailored silk suit. Which is both reassuring and scary, because Mom, at least, I'm used to.
I look over at my stepsister, who's huddled in her corner of the backseat, apparently still embarrassed over her collision with the display case. I tell her, "If you moved that grizzly bear to New York, somebody would build a whole museum around it."
She makes a small noise that could be a sniff or a giggle.
I tell her, "You make the third Amy that I know. There are two in my school."
She whispers, "Dancers."
Surprised, I ask, "How did you know that?"
She shrugs, and I'm thinking there are easier things than trying to talk with a nine-year-old when suddenly she says, "We're going backpacking."
"Us. Day after tomorrow. Pop bought a new tent just for you and me."
Pop? I wonder, and then I realize she means Dad.
Amy's voice turns anxious. "Is that okay?"
"Sharing a tent? Yes, but...Dad?" I say, leaning forward. "Is that right? I was expecting to have some time-"
Amy asks, "Don't you want to go?"
"It's not that," I answer. "I'm just surprised."
Meg says, "The timing's my doing. Part of the reason we're going is to pin down the location of an old homestead site while there's still enough summer left to do a good follow-up."
For a second I don't know what she's talking about, and then I remember. She's a historian-an archaeologist, actually-with the Forest Service. I ask, "So this will be a working vacation?"
"Partly," she answers. "For me."
"Got it," I say.
I'd just as soon not get to know my new family under circumstances that throw us together every minute, but working vacations are one thing I understand. It will just be odd to watch someone else do the work.
I sleep in the guest room since Amy's taken over mine and wake up the next morning to clear sunshine and different sounds than I'm used to. Here there're no horns or sirens; there's no city roar.
The nightstand clock says 11:30-I never sleep so late!-and I realize Dad and Meg must have left for work hours ago. I listen for Amy and then remember her mentioning something about spending the day with a friend. Getting out of the unfamiliar bed, I feel oddly out of place, and the sensation grows as I go through the house, looking at it in a way that I couldn't last night. I know I've got a right to be here, but there's just enough difference from how it used to be to make me feel like an intruder.
Things I expect to see are gone, replaced by things that I don't know, like a new countertop in the bathroom. And framed pictures from the Hawaii wedding that Mom decided I shouldn't attend because, she said, I couldn't afford the time.
I pause at the doorway to Dad and Meg's room, which still has the furniture from when it was his and Mom's. It's been rearranged, though, and the patterned wallpaper and heavy drapes are gone. Now it's just dark wood, white walls, and uncovered windows looking out at trees hung with a half-dozen bird feeders.
The changes are jolting-as though I closed my eyes on the past and opened them to find it changed-and they remind me how little I know about my new stepmother. It takes effort to push down a worry that we might not get along.
When I get to my old room, though, I burst out laughing. Amy's version of leaving it neat was to pile a foot-high heap of stuff on her bed and cover it with the spread. I pick up a stray sock and shove it in with her other things.
And then I see the pictures under the glass top of her desk, and my stomach does a little flip-flop. It's a collage of photos cut from a teen magazine article about my academic school, which is just for kids who are studying to be performing artists or already have professional careers. Amy has mounted them on colored paper and used gold ink to write in our names and what we do.
I trace the faces through the glass and wonder if I'll ever see them again.
There's one o...